The minivan’s got to be the worst car in the world. I say so because it seems people will go to great lengths to avoid driving one. That's why a new type of vehicle popped up about a decade ago: the car-based, three-row, unit-body SUV. Basically, these midsize SUVS are minivans cut to look like trucks. You’re familiar with them, of course: the Ford Explorer, Chevrolet Traverse, Honda Pilot, and Nissan Pathfinder, the last of which we can’t resist referring to as the Mallfinder. Then, of course, there’s the hugely successful Toyota Highlander, the third generation of which is the subject of this review. Toyota moves well over 10,000 of them per month, and would like to increase that number to 140,000 units per year.
Here’s the thing: For the domestic task at hand (i.e., hauling your brood and all their gear from ballet to piano lessons to soccer games), no vehicle beats a minivan. Since there aren’t any viable, affordable, three-row station wagons, logic dictates the minivan is the best way to go -- especially since a comparable CUV will be heavier, costlier, worse on fuel, tighter inside, and less carlike in terms of handling. All that being true, loads of people overwhelmingly choose a crossover over what they perceive to be the deeply unsexy minivan. (There’s a Woody Allen joke in here somewhere: “Every hooker l meet says it beats the hell out of waitressing. Waitressing's got to be the worst job in the world.”) But instead, let’s talk Highlander.
According to Toyota, there were three problems with the previous, second-generation Highlander. It wasn’t good looking enough, it wasn’t focused on families as much as it should be, and it didn’t handle all that well. From most angles, it’s fairly clear that the new Highlander’s pulchritude is way up. The big grille and squinty eyes look macho and aggressive, much like the new Tundra. The rear features taillights similar to those of the handsome new RAV4, and there’s a slickly integrated wing. However, from certain angles -- chiefly the hard side -- you can see that while the vehicle is larger overall, Toyota didn’t bother to increase the wheelbase an iota. The result is bloat.
Still, the new Highlander is better-looking than the outgoing model. I used to think looks didn't matter for (excuse the expression) mommy-mobiles. Then a good friend of mine wanted something that would better suit her 1-year-old. I explained how the Subaru Forester would be the absolute perfect vehicle for her and her child. She came back from the dealer in an Outback because “the Forester looks like something my mother would drive.” She bought a more expensive, thirstier, older, and less kid-friendly car because of how it looks.
As for the Highlander being better for families, that’s a mixed bag. There are some interior improvements I like. Extra room is always appreciated, and there’s now room for eight people, though the third row remains extremely cramped for adults. Second, there’s a bin between the front seats large enough to hold a purse. (Toyota mentioned that it’s able to swallow 58 juice boxes, but I’m going to advise against doing that.) Of particular note is the large shelf that runs across the bottom two-thirds of the dashboard, a totally handy place to stick your cell phone(s), sunglasses, wallet, power bars, receipts, etc. Toyota won’t love hearing this, but the shelf is far and away the best part of the new Highlander. Every car should come so equipped.
However, there’s some not-so-good thinking going on inside. Like Driver Easy Speak, a built in one-way microphone so that Daddy’s voice can be heard in the third row. What parent can’t yell at their kid from just a few feet away? Moreover, DES makes your voice sound like it’s coming through an Arby’s drive-thru speaker. It would be sad if it weren’t so laughable. Overall, the interior’s more luxurious than it was, especially in the higher-spec vehicles.
The final piece of the Highlander puzzle is the way it drives. I was able to evaluate four different examples in and around the gorgeous Monterey Peninsula, including trips to Big Sur, Pebble Beach, and Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca (the last being a public park -- we drove the Highlander right up to the Corkscrew for a bit of light off-roading). Starting at the bottom, the carryover 2.7-liter, 185-hp I-4 is potent enough to move about 4500 pounds' worth of FWD crossover up and down the road. However, that vehicle (the LE) is so poorly optioned (e.g., no navigation, budget seats and cabin materials, no AWD) that I think Toyota’s estimate of a 5 percent take rate is optimistic, even with the $30,075 starting price.
Both the XLE and the Limited come with the (also) carryover 3.5-liter V-6 good for 270 hp. I should point out that the new Highlander makes less power than the Traverse, Durango, and Explorer. It does make more than the Honda Pilot, though that vehicle is slated to get the 290-hp V-6 from the Acura MDX. Toyota repeatedly assured me that its customers don’t care about things like power or number of gears. Keeping with that theme, the transmission remains a six-speed automatic, though the programming logic is different. Even with the same old powertrain, the V-6 Highlanders are capable of hustling down the road… adequately.
The big power comes from the Hybrid Highlander, in theory. That vehicle gets a (also carryover) 3.5-liter Atkinson cycle V-6 that’s good for 231 hp, along with three electric motors. Combined, the entire system is good for 280 peak horsepower. But the extra weight of all that hybrid stuff and the squishy regen brakes make the Hybrid Highlander feel more sluggish and clumsy than its stablemates. Each Highlander’s handling is competent without being memorable.
However, if you are looking for high mpg, Toyota feels the EPA’s going to certify the Hybrid at 27/28/28. Which isn’t bad.
That’s the story of the refreshed, third-gen Highlander in a nutshell: It isn’t bad. It’s not particularly interesting, wonderful, game-changing, groundbreaking, innovative, a swing for the fences, or even class-leading. But it’s not a bad trucklike people-mover. The new Highlander is easier on the eyes; the interior has been jazzed up a touch; and the big girl doesn’t seem to wobble around as much as the last one did. Toyota achieved its goals. I just wish it had aimed higher. Maybe one day customers will wake up and realize what a bogus segment this is, and learn to love the minivan.